Should I house my cows to prevent poaching?

The persistent and heavy rainfall last week and over the weekend has lead to the majority of soils across the country reaching saturation point. The challenge on farms now is to try and keep grass in the cow’s diet – as much as possible – while trying to avoid poaching and reach target residuals.

Before considering housing animals, some questions need to be answered.

How much damage is being done?

Many farmers are known to panic when they see grazing damage being done and immediately house animals. But, it is always important to think before you act.

Every farm is different; some farms are more prone to poaching damage than others. In wet weather conditions like this, a certain amount of poaching damage is inevitable; but, it is knowing when enough is enough that is important.

According to Teagasc, initial poaching damage – unless severe – has very minimal effects on subsequent grass production, as perennial-ryegrass swards are well adapted to coping with poaching damage.

However, it is repeat poaching damage in subsequent rounds which can lower future grass growth rates by up to 20%.

In addition, because the poaching is being done now in the second last or final rotation it has time to recover before the farm is opened again next spring.

Have you tried using some grazing techniques?

In difficult grazing conditions, some simple grazing techniques can be implemented to try and continue including a portion of grass in the cow’s diet.

One option is on-off grazing. This involves allowing the herd, or a proportion of the herd, out to graze for a few hours in the morning and/or a few hours in the evening. Letting them out, with an enthusiastic appetite, is also critically important to the success of on-off grazing.

Another option is to let half the herd out by day and the other half by night; this means less animals are in the paddock at the one time – less cows; less damage.

Grazing drier paddocks or paddocks with lower covers first before wet or stronger paddocks could also be an option.

Finally, difficult ground conditions is where good grazing infrastructure really comes into play. Having multiple access points to paddocks and a good network of roadways can make life a lot easier in poor weather conditions.

If ground is very ‘soft’ and a large amount of poaching is being done, there may be no other option but to house animals for a period of time – until conditions improve. Where this is the case, house hygiene should be a top priority – to prevent mastitis.

Additionally, the best-quality silage must be fed to help maintain milk production.